5 types of corporate cultures: Which is yours?

The ‘comrade,’ the ‘free spirit,’ the ‘traditionalist’: Here’s how to identify the essence of your business environment and your company’s defining traits.

Culture affects every aspect of your company, from the public’s perception of your brand to your employees’ job satisfaction to your bottom line.

Whatever your line of work, it’s essential that your corporate culture is adaptable and open to improvement. This starts with establishing what kind of culture your company breeds and supports.

Although no two cultures are exactly alike, organizations tend to fall under one of these categories:

1. Team-first corporate culture (a.k.a. “the comrade”)

A company with a team-first mentality makes employees’ happiness its top priority.

Frequent team outings, opportunities to provide meaningful feedback and flexibility to accommodate personal schedules are hallmarks of a team-first culture. Consider Netflix and its decision to offer unlimited family leave.

Team-oriented companies tend to hire for culture fit first—skills and experience second— because they know that happy employees make for happier customers. This approach dovetails with customer service-focused organizations.

Zappos is famous for its fun and nurturing culture, as well as its stellar customer service. As its CEO says, “Zappos is a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.”

Zappos empowers employees to help customers the way they see fit, rather than forcing staff to follow rigid guidelines and scripts. Customers appreciate the straightforward, personalized service, but giving employees that level of autonomy isn’t without risks.

Possible pitfalls: The larger the company, the more difficult it is to maintain this type of culture. There’s always a risk of employees pushing boundaries too far. That’s why having a team member dedicated to developing culture is worth consideration.

You may have a team-first culture if these are the case:

• Employees are friendly with people in other departments.

• Your team regularly socializes outside work.

• You receive thoughtful feedback from employees in surveys.

• People take pride in their workstations.

2. Elite corporate culture (a.k.a. “the athlete”)

Businesses with elite corporate cultures are always innovating, so they need brilliant employees who can lead the way (think Google).

Fast growth and big splashes in the market are often a result—as are spectacular implosions.

Companies with elite cultures often seek to change the world by untested means. SpaceX employees literally launch rockets, so expectations are extremely high: 60- to 70-hour work weeks are the norm. Playing a role in meaningful, history-making work keeps most employees motivated, but it’s not for everyone.

Possible pitfalls: Such intensity can lead to burnout, excessive stress and conflicts among employees. Perks such as team outings, peer recognition programs and health initiatives can combat this.

These suggest an elite culture:

• Employees aren’t afraid to question things that could be improved.

• Employees make work their priority.

• Your top talent moves up the ranks quickly.

• You have many highly qualified job applicants.

3. Horizontal corporate culture (a.k.a. “the free spirit”)

Horizontal cultures are common among startups because it makes for a collaborative, experimental, egalitarian environment.

Titles don’t mean much in horizontal cultures. Communication is open and free.

Basecamp is a successful company that maintains a startup mindset. The company made an intentional decision to stay about the same size instead of expanding.

Possible pitfalls: Horizontal cultures can suffer from a lack of direction and accountability. The trick is to encourage collaboration and freedom while maintaining clearly defined goals, responsibilities and structure.

You may have a horizontal culture if these occur:

• Teammates discuss new product ideas in the break room.

• Everybody does a little bit of everything.

• The CEO makes his or her own coffee.

• You still have to prove your product’s worth to critics.

4. Conventional corporate culture (a.k.a. “the traditionalist”)

Do you punch a clock and have a dress code at work? Is remote work considered an abomination? If so, you are probably toiling in a conventional corporate culture.

Your local bank or car dealership embodies these traits. The customer is not necessarily always right; the bottom line takes precedence. Traditional companies still have clearly defined hierarchies, and many are slow to embrace new technology.

Founded in 1892, GE is about as traditional as they come. Recently, however, the company eliminated its traditional performance review in favor of more frequent conversations between managers and employees. GE is even launching an app to help facilitate feedback, which shows that traditional doesn’t have to mean stagnant.

Possible pitfalls: This stodgy approach leaves little room for inspiration or experimentation, which can result in staff resentment and recruiting problems.

These convey a conventional culture:

• There are strict guidelines for most departments and positions.

• People in different departments generally don’t interact.

• Major decisions are left up to the CEO.

• Your employees get docked for leaving early.

5. Progressive corporate culture (a.k.a. “the nomad”)

Mergers, acquisitions or sudden changes in the market can contribute to a progressive culture. Uncertainty is its defining trait; employees are subjected to frequent turbulence and rumors.

“Customers” are often separate from the company’s audience, because these companies usually must answer to investors or advertisers.

LinkedIn’s $1.5 billion acquisition of Lynda.com is one recent example of companies in transition.

Possible pitfalls: A progressive culture can instill fear in employees. Any change in management or ownership—even if it’s good for the company—can be unnerving. Communication is crucial in tamping down the stress of working in a progressive corporate culture.

You may have a progressive culture if these are true:

• Employees talk openly about the competition and possible buyouts.

• Your company has a high turnover rate.

• Most of your funds come from advertisers, grants or donations.

• Changes in the market affect your revenue.

A version of this post first appeared on the Enplug blog.


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